Producing an album can be a slow-moving beast, but singer-songwriter Andrew O’Keeffe finally did it. The Cambridge local released his first full-length album on November 12; a self-titled CD full of folk tunes.
“The very first stuff we started recording was in January 2014,” said O’Keeffe. “Our original goal was to finish by May 2014.”
He laughed at the obvious delay. The guy is definitely a perfectionist. O’Keeffe tends to write slowly and dwell on his projects until it comes out just the way he wants it.
His music career started early. As a boy, he took classical guitar lessons, though he wanted to play Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. You know, what every 12-year-old kid wants to learn. O’Keeffe grew up on the South Shore in Cohasset, where he sang and played guitar in a high school band with friends. Like most high bands, it didn’t amount to anything concrete. He graduated from University of Montreal after a couple years of studying Mediterranean archeology before he made the leap to Cambridge in 2009.
“It just seemed like the place to be,” said O’Keeffe. “I played a little in Montreal and I knew I wanted to pursue it back home. I thought, ‘Surely I’ll have a band in no time.’ But it definitely didn’t work out that way.”
O’Keeffe had trouble finding musicians serious enough to play in a band. However, he stumbled upon some singer-songwriter tunes that marked the pivotal moment in his music career: He realized how well his voice blended with acoustic sounds.
Singing live, however, is an another hurdle. O’Keeffe was terrified to sing live at first.
“It’s kind of an ultimate form of vulnerability. Public speaking is bad enough. When you begin to write your own lyrics about things that have happened in life, you’re really putting yourself out there,” he said. “Always worrying that people would think the lyrics are dumb or that the song overall is just bad.”
While he searched for his niche, he attended open mics in Quincy and various bars to get comfortable with the scene.
“It helped bridge the gap between Montreal and … Cambridge,” O’Keeffe smiled fondly. “Started to get my feet under how to get gigs, and where to play. At that time, I was doing a lot of covers. Sang a lot of 90s covers at open mics.”
His favorite was the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock.” Sadly, he found these rock songs didn’t lend themselves well to a solo artist. O’Keeffe finally read the lyrics of these covers and realized they were terrible. He started filtering in his original songs after that.
O’Keeffe found adjusting his performance style to the studio to be the hardest part of the album process. It required a completely different approach. It took a few years, but O’Keeffe refused to cut corners. He met Wil Renderos, the audio engineer behind the album, while at public health company, John Snow Inc. They crossed paths at the Middle East and chatted at work, eventually deciding to collaborate on O’Keeffe’s project. The two co-workers started making a plan in the fall of 2013 and began recording the following January.
They spent months recording in Paris Street Gallery in Everett, Mass., a renovated industrial warehouse venue that doubles as an art gallery and music venue. They host everything from art and hip-hop shows to wedding receptions. People rent out spaces inside the warehouse to jam, record, or work on their art. This is how O’Keeffe discovered the artist who designed the cover of the album.
“Wil and I were there side by side the whole time. He was the magician behind getting everyone sounding good.”
O’Keeffe spoke fondly of every person who aided him in the album process: friend Andy Buckley played drums, a friend’s roommate, Emma Puka-Beals, provided background vocals, coworker Ben Bruno played fiddle on “Devil in the Deep,” and high school friend, and band member of the Van Burens, Jeff King played keyboards.
“That’s why it took so long to put together because it was hard to coordinate all these people when they’re not actually my bandmates,” noted O’Keeffe. “I had to put live shows on hold to make the album.”
O’Keeffe defined his sound as simple, but powerful enough to hold you without being too busy. His favorite track off the album is “Devil in the Deep” for its representation of his personal and musical growth. It was the story he intended to tell from the start.
“I wanted to tell a sea shanty type of song and I feel like I accomplished that,” he said.
He described a fine line between getting the idea across in telling a story or complicating the original idea. O’Keeffe also enjoys the track’s stripped qualities; just his vocals and the fiddle. He stops mid-sentence, smiles, and points out Foo Fighter’s “Everlong” pouring from the speakers. It was one of the acoustic covers he played while just starting out.
Now that the studio time is finished, O’Keeffe hopes to get more involved with different artists outside Cambridge.
“I would like to be playing regularly with other musicians of a similar genre, in venues that are appropriate to my style.”
O’Keeffe has held this goal in mind for awhile. He has set objectives and networked his way through the scene. He’s passionate and hopeful for the next year.
“If you work really hard, it’s less likely that nothing will come out of it. If I wasn’t optimistic, I would think this is a waste of time,” O’Keeffe said with a laugh.
Give a listen to Andrew O’Keeffe’s newest release on Soundcloud, or see him at the House of Blues restaurant on January 23.